Another year of March Madness is in the books and this tournament had something for everyone.
For the first time ever a 16-seed defeated a 1-seed, and in the most unexpected fashion as the alphabet soup of UMBC (fun, but not as much fun as my personal favorite, the palindrome IUPUI) totally dismantled Virginia and busted millions of brackets.
The Elite Eight overtime battle between perennial powerhouses Duke and Kansas and the ultimate victory by Villanova seemed to steady the listing ship of NCAA men’s basketball – a ship that this season hit the icebergs of FBI investigations, player arrests in China, and national title-stripping.
Yet, in the end, the face – and bobble-head – of the tournament belonged to a 98-year old member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jean Dolores Schmidt, B.V.M., known to the world as Sister Jean, longtime chaplain of the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers men’s basketball team, became the media darling of the tournament. In doing so she revealed that even in a society that has an ambivalent relationship with religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, people can’t help but root for a woman who has dedicated over eight decades of her life to God and His work.
As is typical of the here today-gone today, sound-bite nature of the modern media feeding frenzy, there was little time afforded to the ultimate purpose of Sister Jean’s association with the basketball Ramblers. The lasting impression for many of those who viewed the circus surrounding this dedicated woman religious is that she is a sort of human rabbit’s foot affording the Ramblers the advantage of prayers in heaven or at least the placebo effect of such prayers.
The chaplain-as-good-luck-charm narrative could not be further from the truth, and, in light of the Ignatian desire to “find God in all things” the purpose of a chaplain is often just the opposite of providing that seemingly unfair Catholic advantage over pagan opponents. The chaplain of any team at any Catholic school is charged with the task of helping the players to put athletics in its proper context. Our legendary President at Saint Ignatius Fr. Robert Welsh, S.J. ’54 noted that our job – and by extension the job of a team chaplain – is to help our students to answer the question, “What does God want from me?”
In the high-stakes world of Division I men’s college basketball it is difficult to get anyone to even ask that question, let alone take it seriously. In a nation where way too many “adults” derive their sense of personal worth through the success of their favorite teams, not too many people are very concerned with a question that can’t be measured in wins and losses.
The true value of someone like Sister Jean, as well as Father Bob Hagen the chaplain at Villanova and all of the other team chaplains in college sports, is their ability to tell young people that their athletic successes and failures must be placed within a different picture than the one that society at large has painted for them. Too many college athletes, especially in a high profile sport like Division I basketball, have, from a very young age, been taken advantage of by people whose only concerns are the four areas that St. Thomas Aquinas warns against: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor.
Athletes at Catholic colleges and universities are fortunate in that they hear the alternate voice of a faith that unites with reason to overcome what the Church Fathers called concupiscence, that desire for earthly rather than heavenly things. For these athletes the goal should not be a professional contract, making ESPN’s Top Ten, or even winning a national championship. The goal should be A.M.D.G., to do all “for the greater glory of God.”
Also fortunate are the colleges and universities that successfully recruit Saint Ignatius Wildcats, since they get much more than so-called student-athletes. Thanks to the work of the ever ebullient Drew Vilinsky ’97, founding Director of the Sports Chaplaincy Program at Saint Ignatius, these schools and coaches are getting young men who already know why a team needs a chaplain.
The work of Drew and the other chaplains ensures that the wearing of A.M.D.G. on a uniform is not just “branding”, it is something that Sister Jean would recognize as an essential part of the life of any student-athlete, but especially one who attends a Jesuit institution named after St. Ignatius Loyola.